The End of the Television Era

Thanks to a post from Mookie, I’ve been thinking about TV and how it has changed.   (And Mookie’s a young guy, he probably doesn’t even remember the launching of MTV in 1981!)

Back when I was young I was told in a high school psychology class that most people dream in Black and White.   I thought that was an odd thing for the teacher to claim, since I was pretty sure I dreamed in color.   When I next had a vividly colored dream I reported it to the teacher, wondering if perhaps I had a special sort of mind that broke through the color barrier.   Turns out that my Psych teacher was part of a unique generation — the black and white TV generation.   People born in the early era of TV somehow learned to dream in black and white, like TV shows.

On a morning in 1968, I was spared that fate.  The telephone rang and my Grandma told me and my sister to go down to the TV room.  That room (which later that year would become my bedroom after my second sister was born) was where we got together as a family to watch shows like Batman, Lost in Space, or a movie like PT109 (about JFK in WWII).   It was a Saturday morning, cartoon time, so we wasted no time running downstairs.    I still remember stopping as my jaw dropped in amazement as the cartoon version of “The Lone Ranger” was on.   IN COLOR!  My Grandma had bought us a color TV.

My Grandma lived in Mankato, MN, in an apartment over a men’s clothing store.   She worked at a store called Buttreys as a manager, and we thought she had the best of all worlds.   A cool downtown apartment (with a great metal staircase going up the side of the building), lots of nice neighbors who would give us ice cream, and a color TV.   When we visited, we’d rush to watch whatever was on, often Johnny Carson late at night.  I still recall the jingle for Channel 11 out of Minneapolis “Metromedia television, 11, 11, 11….”   In those days the color shows had a “C” in the TV Guide next to them.  My Grandma also had something rare — cable television.  Rural areas were experimenting with ways to expand the number of stations received, and Mankato happened to have an early cable system in the mid-sixties (she got about nine stations, I believe).

It was in Mankato where I saw Johnny Carson have Raquel Welch as a guest.   She came out with a cat, and she said, “would you like to pet my pussy,” and he replied, “sure, if you move that damn cat.”   Google this incident and it’s listed as an urban legend that didn’t happen.   There are no tapes from many of those episodes, what was on live dissipated as soon as the image flashed on the screen, there is no record.   As far as history is concerned, Carson and Welch managed to get that scene categorized as “never having happened.”   But I saw it.  I know.   I also remember when Heidi, a movie about a Swiss girl, interrupted an exciting football playoff game — you know that wouldn’t happen now.

Sioux Falls didn’t get cable until 1974, but we enjoyed having a real color TV.   After school I’d watch shows like Star Trek, Gilligan’s Island, I Dream of Jeannie, and Hogan’s Heroes.   The TV moved to our basement rec room after the TV room became my bedroom.   I had the only downstairs bedroom, though, so I could sneak out and watch shows like Perry Mason, Alfred Hitchcock, the Twilight Zone, and Johnny Carson.  And, of course, with only a few stations, everyone watched the same shows.    All the school kids watched Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer the one night it was on, or my favorite, How the Grinch Stole Christmas.   By high school we were talking every Monday about 60 Minutes, and the way they caught some corrupt person red handed.

Television changed the country.   I recall watching All in the Family from the start in 1970, and despite being so young, appreciating that it was a new kind of sitcom — reflecting the times.   Maude, The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, and that great sitcom with Valerie Bertenelli  (mom and two daughters, handman Schneider…can’t recall the name of the show, MacKenzie Phillips was the other daughter).  After I got over my crush on Marcia from The Brady Bunch, I was in love with Valerie.   Television was our pop culture, it reflected changing values, especially as my all time favorite show, MASH pushed the boundaries of how to deal with issues like war and patriotism.   But perhaps my favorite were the mystery movies — Columbo, Banacek, Macmillan and Wife. Banacek (George Peppard) was really cool, he had a phone in his car!

The 80s saw a continuation of the TV era…St. Elsewhere, Hillstreet Blues, Cheers, The Cosby Show (Thursday night was the original Must See TV on NBC)…but yet, change was afoot.  Suddenly the cable systems were offering 50 or more channels, with a “cable box” (since TVs only went to channel 13).   A 24 hour news station, CNN, was introduced, with swift and surprising success.   MTV came out when I was 21, and I soon found myself addicted to watching that cool new art form, the music video.   For a brief time, this fragmentation co-existed with a solid core of heavily watched network TV.

By the 90s cable was into the hundreds of stations.   People had been buying satellite dishes — huge expensive pieces of equipment to tap into satellites.   For awhile, this brought the few who could afford such a thing a massive amount of TV — until stations started to scramble their signals.   Soon mini-dishes with services like Dishnet and Direct TV took over.   Now with DVRs, programming is so fragmented that TV rarely offers that cultural window that it did in the past.  It is to the current generation what radio was to mine — useful at times, but not primary.

It was the internet, combining with massive fragmentation, that altered television forever.   The era of television ended sometime in the mid-nineties, as the internet started to take over.    The “Tuesday Night Movie” that might be watched by a good chunk of the country — a TV release of last year’s theater favorite — became irrelevant as DVD rentals and now video on demand via computer allowed one to watch films uncensored for TV, and without commercials.   The Saturday morning cartoon ritual became replaced by multiple cartoon stations repeating the same shows over and over, all day long.  Even young kids are shifting from TV to the internet.

I enjoyed the television era.  From the classic commercials (“I Can’t Believe I ate the whole thing…”) to 80% of the country tuning in to Walter Cronkite to get the thirty minutes of evening news, it was a charming and culturally significant part of Americana.    Of course television, like radio before, isn’t going to disappear.  Radio found its niches — music, talk radio, sports, morning weather reports, etc. — and television will continue to have its niche appeal.   Parents won’t worry about kids watching too much TV, they’ll monitor internet time.    Kids will watch old shows at time for fun, laughing at of Star Trek episodes, so politically incorrect according to today’s sensibilities, but groundbreakingly progressive in the mid-sixties.

Robert Plant’s 1980s song “Little by Little, everything changes” jumps in my head a lot these days.   Back in the 80s it seemed that TV would be the entertainment mode of the future, and all technological advances would go via the television.   Now, it has been pushed aside by a digital mass media age that changes everything about how people entertain themselves, network, communicate and interact.   And, while it’s tempting to decry the change, I remember days in high school, bored at home at night…watching TV, writing stories, reading…what I wouldn’t have given to be able to go on line and connect!

  1. #1 by classicliberal2 on August 20, 2009 - 04:07

    The guest during that Johnny Carson incident was Zsa Zsa Gabor, not Raquel Welch, and my uncle, too, remembers it happening. I didn’t see it myself–I would have been too young, I imagine–but I’ve heard the story from him more than once over the years. I’m surprised to learn some consider it an urban legend.

    I’m one who would normally say I hate television. I don’t watch much of it. I used to watch a lot of it, though. Film is my passion, and tv was my primary window into it growing up, before there were VCRs. I always loved the local late-night horror shows. Chiller Theater, Shock Theater, and so on. The latter was a Saturday night staple when I was a wee tyke, hosted by Dr. Shock and his faithful companion Dingbat (actually a puppet made from a broom). When I owned my own video store, I set up a little shrine to the good Doc, and it never failed to provoke fond memories among my clientele old enough to remember him. I tried to track down Dr. Shock when I first opened. I wanted to see if he’d be interested in making a personal appearance at the store. I never found him and dropped the idea after a while. He died last year, so I never got to meet him.

    I have fond memories of more shows, over the years, than can be easily recounted. I love the original Twilight Zone. I think it’s one of the high points in the history of the medium. The original Star Trek. Not politically incorrect at all! Definitely All In The Family. That one worked so well because it was a drama, as well as a comedy, and often took to task both sides of any given raging social debate. Dan Curtis did great work on horror projects, adapting literary classics in the horror vein, and he brought Carl Kolchak to the screen–I’d have to love him if that had been the only thing he ever did. Kenneth Johnson did action-adventure sci fi drama that engaged rather than insulted one’s intelligence, things like the original V miniseries, and the Incredible Hulk series. In the ’80s, you had noir come to television in the form of Miami Vice and Crime Story, even Mike Hammer. Twin Peaks was a blast, and suddenly everyone had to have a show about some weird town–a lot of good stuff from that cycle. Cable was also a HELL of a lot better then, too. In the early days, they’d play just about anything to fill time.

    These days, it’s all fragmented, broken up into a million different outlets, and, perversely, is less diverse than ever. We do, however, manage to get some of the best work the medium has ever produced. In that category certainly falls the current Battlestar Galactica (the best show of its kind since the original Star Trek), and Breaking Bad has to rank pretty high on the list as well. The work of David Kelley has always been excellent. Maybe the tv era IS over. There still some magic in that little box, though. Sometimes, you just have to dig for it.

    • #2 by Scott Erb on August 21, 2009 - 00:33

      Yeah, I agree — there is still some magic. Zsa Zsa Gabor, eh? I was very young so my memory may be faulty, but I do know the exchange took place!

  2. #3 by John H. on August 20, 2009 - 04:14

    Hey Scott,
    Great post! The show you’re thinking of with Valerie Bertinelli was “One Day at a Time.”

    I remember feeling the same way about Kristy McNichol, though looking back I’m not sure why 😉

  3. #4 by Mike Lovell on August 20, 2009 - 14:33

    “(And Mookie’s a young guy, he probably doesn’t even remember the launching of MTV in 1981!)”

    You’re right, I waseither 2 or just short of 2 yrs old during this moment, depending on the month. But that brings me yet another gripe…if MTV stands for MUSIC television, why are there more non-music shows than music videos….corporate idiots.

    “All the school kids watched Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer the one night it was on, or my favorite, How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”

    This was a yearly thing for my family, along with the Charlie Brown Christmas and Frosty the Snowman. Also, a yearly watch was The Wizard of Oz.

  4. #5 by Mike Lovell on August 20, 2009 - 14:40

    I totally forgot….my dad used to watch MASH everynight, and as another feather in his cap of trying to watch me turn into him (he really IS the EVIL Duane!), I also LOVE that show. A couple Christmases ago, my wife and brothers got her dad teh entire series on DVD. Did Mookie get any MASH watching material??? Noooooo!!!!! Not for me. It used to run on the CW for a while, REAL late at night, and after awhile they just dumped it. Again…corporate bastards!

    • #6 by Scott Erb on August 21, 2009 - 00:34

      I used to take a cassette tape recorder and tape the audio of episodes of MASH as a kid. Wouldn’t it be cool someday if you could tape the video as well, I used to think.

  5. #7 by Josh on August 21, 2009 - 01:58

    I love M.A.S.H. !!!! 🙂

    Television and movies were so much better back in 50s and 60s! Nowadays, I usually can’t find anything worth watching on TV or in the movies.

    As for the internet, I think it has done a lot of good and a lot of bad for media. I won’t get into that, however.

  6. #8 by notesalongthepath on August 25, 2009 - 04:11

    A fun trip down memory lane. And, before you know it, you’ll be writing about the latest interests of your sons and where their generation leads us.
    I told my middle son once that after the ability we all have to connect with IMs and Twitter, the next logical step was ESP. He laughed and shook his head like I was crazy. “Don’t be so sure about that!” I said, laughing with him. I wonder?

  7. #9 by henitsirk on August 26, 2009 - 03:25

    Wow, I haven’t thought about some of those shows in a long, long time. I used to watch all those old mystery/detective shows with my mom — don’t forget Ellery Queen and The Rockford Files!

    The 70s had some amazing television, considering the huge social changes it reflected — single moms (One Day at a Time, the black middle class (The Jeffersons, 60s liberalism (Archie Bunker — Meathead, not Archie!). I also remember how groundbreaking The Cosby Show seemed — a black family, well-to-do, educated, and not shown in contrast with white people (as the Jeffersons were) but simply just as the protagonists of their own stories.

    Ah, when I go down memory lane like this, I almost start to question our decision not to have a TV and let our children watch. I think they will get their infusion of pop culture, regardless, without it being a big part of our home life, in any case.

  8. #10 by Televisions on September 4, 2009 - 04:37

    Hey, you have a great blog here! I’m definitely going to bookmark you! Thank you for your info.And this is **Televisions** site/blog. It pretty much covers Televisions related stuff…

  1. People’s Memory « LanguageLover's Weblog

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